Recap: Heartfelt humanity, magnificent music in Grand Rapids Symphony's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Gustav Mahler wrestled with the big questions, and then he set them to music. To create a symphony, for the late Romantic composer, was to create a world.

When conductor Bruno Walter visited Mahler in 1896 at his summer retreat in the Alps, the younger man paused to admire the beautiful vista. Mahler told Walter he needn’t bother.

“You don't have to look at that,” Mahler said. “I've already composed it.”

Mahler was referring to his Symphony No. 3, the result of that summer vacation, and the Grand Rapids Symphony gave a magnificent performance of Mahler’s hymn to the natural world on Friday, April 12, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Friday’s concert ended with a standing ovation that lasted more than four-and-a-half minutes. The concert in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series repeats at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 13. Tickets, starting at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available.

Lehninger welcomed Grand Rapids’ own Michelle DeYoung, a three-time Grammy Award winning singer who earned one of her Grammy’s for her 2003 recording of this piece with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. It’s been more than 14 years since DeYoung last appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony in January 2005. It’s been even longer since the orchestra last performed Mahler’s Third Symphony in February 2002.

GRS and Mahler Third Symphony with Michelle DeYoung

DeYoung, who was born in Grand Rapids, grew up out west, and returned to study at Calvin College for two years, was joined by the women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, the young singers of the Grand Rapids Symphony Junior Chorus, and Mandala, a select ensemble drawn from the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus.

In all, nearly 250 musicians were on stage, the biggest orchestra of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season, to perform the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, lasting 100 minutes.

Long perhaps, but it doesn’t seem that long. It’s a big work many big moments, but much of the five-movement work also is subdued and intimate. There’s a lot of canvas to fill, and Lehninger did a commendable job of drawing together the large musical force and guiding it nimbly and efficiently through so many different musical moments.

It’s especially appropriate for spring. Mahler’s Third Symphony has a certain freshness and sense of renewal. The opening movement, subtitled “Summer Marches in,” lasting some 40 minutes, depicts the arrival of spring and summer, though in mythological terms. Mahler subtitled the subsequent movements, “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” “What Humanity Tells Me,” “What the Angels Tell Me” and, finally, “What Love Tells Me.”

Lehninger, who masterfully conducted the entire work without intermission, supplied the answers.

The beginning is massive, beginning with a daunting statement that only eight horns in unison can deliver. It’s also a work of subtlety and refinement. The opening movement, depicting the arrival of the god Pan, was sharply drawn with carefully calibrated colors timbres. Assistant principal trombonist Dan Mattson delivered a sturdy, ominous trombone solo, depicting the end of winter, while the rest of the orchestra celebrated with the brash sounds of summer coming over the horizon.

After a long exposition of understated beauty, the exciting end of the beginning was explosive. The song-like second movement, with its lilting minuet rhythm, was sweet, all the more so because of Concertmaster James Crawford’s delightful solos. The rustic-flavored third movement featured a noble, off-stage trumpet solo by Paul Torrisi.

DeYoung, who made her first appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony since 2004, joined the orchestra for the fourth movement, a haunting setting of Friedrich Nietzsche's “Zarathustra's Midnight Song” from “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” DeYoung has an amazing voice with equal measures of passion and power enveloped in a gorgeous tone. More to the point, she expressed the heartfelt humanity of the text.  The mezzo soprano sings only a small portion of the work. It also was a pleasure to watch her on stage, listening and reacting to the rest of the performance around her.

The women of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus joined in for the fifth movement, singing the text, “Three Angels Sang,” with a warm, rich sound. Standing just in front of them, the fourth, fifth and sixth graders of the Grand Rapids Symphony Junior Chorus chimed in with the angelic sound of bells.

The symphonic, final movement was one of great delicacy, opening with a beautiful string melody that grew ever more majestic and sublime at the same time. For long moments, Lehninger coaxed more and more from his musicians, drawing a reverent yet passionate melody out of the ensemble.

At the end, Lehninger appeared nearly spent. But not before leading a performance of emotional depth and great satisfaction.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 12:00 AM
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